Matching a Team — Color is Only the Beginning

Recently, I wrote a pair of articles about Cleveland Bays and Yorkshire Coach Horses. Though a single horse of either of these breeds might be hitched to a small carriage, or even ridden under saddle, they were most often harnessed together as teams of two, four or even more. But the matching of a team of horses was, and still is, much more complex than simply finding two horses of the same color. And that complexity increases by several orders of magnitude for each pair added to the team.

The various criteria which must be met in order to achieve a perfectly matched team …

For most Regency gentlemen, or ladies, the first consideration for matching a team of horses, after good general health and a sound constitution, was indeed the color. And in England, in the early nineteenth century, bay was the most prized coat color for horses. It was for that reason that both Cleveland Bays and Yorkshire Coach Horses were so popular, since they were all bays and tended to be fairly consistent in their coloring. However, creams, greys and blacks, when well-matched, also made very impressive teams. There were a few chestnut teams to be seen from time to time, but chestnut coats come in a wide array, from the darker "dull" coat to the coppery "bright" coat, thus making them extraordinarily difficult to match. Based upon the records of the Royal Mews, chestnuts were never used to horse any of the royal carriages. Roans were nearly impossible to match, due to the wide variation in their coat color, so there were even fewer roan teams to be seen than there were chestnuts. It is interesting to note that "patched" or parti-colored horses, known as piebald or skewbald horses in England, were seldom paired as teams during the Regency. Extensive white markings, such as a bald face or white stockings were not considered acceptable for the best coach horses, though some owners would not object to a small white star on the forehead. However, if they did select horses with white stars, every horse in their team had to have very similar markings to be considered properly matched. Solid color horses, especially those with black points, that is, having black legs, mane, tail and often also noses, were considered the most genteel and elegant in appearance and therefore the most appropriate for the teams of the upper classes.

The next consideration, after color, when matching a team was height. Most horsemen preferred teams which stood between 15 and 16 hands high. Taller horses usually got their added height due to their longer legs. Those longer legs tended to be a bit thinner in the bone than the legs of shorter horses and were therefore considered to be a hazard for carriage horses since they were more liable to break in heavy going. But matching a team was not as simple as knowing how tall each horse stood by their measurements. The height of a horse is typically measured from their withers, the center point of their shoulders, to the ground. With some horses, their shoulders are the highest point on their bodies, but with others, the hindquarters will actually rise higher than the withers, while on others they will slope slightly downward. Thus, even though two horses might be considered the same height, based on their measurements at their withers, they would look perfectly silly side by side, if one had rising hindquarters while the other’s were level or sloped downward.

Therefore, both height and general conformation must be considered in order to put together a well-matched team. Both horses in a pair must be the same height at the withers, but they must also have hindquarters of equal height and shape. They must have backs of nearly equal length, so that one horse did not appear longer than the other when they were together in harness. Horses with short backs were considered preferable for carriage horses, as the shorter backs gave them a compact and powerful appearance. Just as important, the horses’ legs should be, as near as possible, the same shape, thickness and length. Each horse should have a chest which is deep and broad, to ensure they have plenty of lung capacity. Their shoulders should be well set and even. Not only should they both have necks of the same length, but each should carry their necks in much the same way. The preferred carriage horse had a neck that was naturally slightly arched, which was considered very stylish. Both horses must, of course, have heads which were similarly set on their necks and their heads should be very close in general size and shape, with eyes which were the same in size and placement. Curiously, many Regency horsemen rejected horses with too much white showing around their eyes, because, at the time, it was believed to be a sign of vice in the horse. To be considered matched, both horses in a pair should have the same general outline from head to tail, with very similar carriage of the head and neck, and legs as nearly alike as possible in shape, thickness and length.

Even if a pair of horses were equally matched in terms of color, height and general conformation, they must also have equal strength and muscle development. An overly-muscled horse, harnessed alongside an under-developed one, would look just as silly as a pair with unequal head sizes, neck lengths or hindquarters. There was also the practical consideration that two horses of unequal strength harnessed together would expend unequal levels of effort. Not only would such a pair create a team with a very ill-favored look as they moved, it was also a very inefficient use of horsepower, since the stronger horse would be overworked at the expense of the weaker one. There was also a higher risk of injury to one of the horses in such an unbalanced pair. It was very important that both horses in a pair be of nearly equal strength in order to ensure the best performance from both, as well as their safety. Horses which would be drawing heavy coaches were expected to have plenty of muscle, since that power would be crucial to ensure they could handle the weight of a heavily loaded coach. However, horses which would be drawing the lighter weight sporting vehicles which had come into fashion during the Regency were considered more elegant if they had leaner bodies with less obvious muscle bulk. These lighter horses might have difficulty in pulling a heavy travelling coach over long distances, but they had the athleticism which enabled them to fly when hitched to a light racing curricle or a high-perch phaeton.

When two horses were found which were equal in all the criteria noted above, they could not yet be considered a matched team, as there were other considerations which must also be met. Standing still in harness, the horses might appear to be mirror images of one another, but that appearance could easily be dispelled as soon as they began to move. A pair of horses must not only match in their physical appearance, but also in their way of going. The length of their strides in all gaits should be very similar, as should their leg action. If one was a high-stepper and the other barely raised his feet, or as horsemen of the period would say, "kicked over a sixpence," at each step, that pair of horses would look quite ridiculous in motion when hitched to the same carriage. When choosing a team during the Regency, knowledgeable horsemen wanted horses with strides of equal length at all gaits, from walk to gallop, with clean, but moderate knee action. Very high-stepping horses might look stylish, but such horses were much more prone to hoof and leg injuries due to the constant concussions they endured when their feet hit the roadway surface from the greater height to which they raised them. High-steppers wasted a great deal of energy raising their feet so high at each step, which also had the effect of shortening their stride and tiring them much more quickly. An experienced horseman preferred horses with crisp, but moderate knee action, combined with a free and forward leg motion. Such horses could cover a longer distance on each stride than a high-stepper, using less energy and with much less risk of injury to feet or legs. These horses may not be thought quite as stylish in appearance by those who did not know or understand horses, but to those who did appreciate the finer points of a well-matched team, they would be considered a superior choice and a pleasure to behold when in motion.

Temperament, disposition and intelligence had to be matched as well, for a pair to function in harmony while in the traces. Harnessing an eager and willing horse next to a lazy one could only cause problems, since the willing horse would end up doing more of the work, but in an unbalanced way, which could lead to lameness or severe muscle strains in that horse. Both horses would be likely to develop sores and abrasions from the harness if they were not working in unison in the traces. Similar problems could occur if a fidgety horse was harnessed with one having a calm temper. However, a fidgety pair or an even-tempered pair hitched together might do very well since they could typically be counted on to perform in a similar way. Thus, they were easier to control and they would also maintain much better balance while in harness together. Not only must each pair of horses be well-matched in temperament and disposition, they must also be well matched to the driver. High-mettled horses would be a handful to manage, but many sporting gentlemen preferred to have teams of such spirited and courageous horses, while a staid country squire might be much happier with a nice, steady, even-tempered pair. Intelligence also mattered when matching a team, as an intelligent horse would respond more promptly to a command from the driver and would be less likely to loose his head in difficult situations. But these desirable qualities would be muted or completely lost if the intelligent horse was paired with one with slow wits who ignored the driver’s commands or shied at any strange thing which surprised him.

Gender and age were also considerations when matching a pair. Many men preferred not to drive teams of mares, because they thought it unmanly. However, intact stallions were generally considered to be too unreliable to be harnessed together as a team, particularly when driven in town. Because they tended to be more aggressive, stallions were just as likely to try to fight their team mate as they were to run easy with him. They were always aware of any mares in the area that might be in season, so they were easily distracted from the work at hand. Therefore, most coach and carriage horses were geldings. However, for those without prejudice as to the gender of their carriage horses, siblings usually made an excellent matched team, as often as not, with brother and sister harnessed side by side. Teams of mares were more often to be seen in rural areas than in urban areas, though there were those in town who cared nothing for the opinions of others and happily drove teams of mares.

Horses of about the same age, typically only a year or two apart, did best in harness together. Putting horses of very different ages in the traces together could cause problems similar to those which resulted from pairing horses of widely divergent temperaments or intelligence. The older horse might not be as strong as the younger horse, might be less eager to work, or might have developed bad habits which could be communicated to the younger team mate. Alternately, the younger horse might be the lazy one, or, with less experience in urban areas, might be more easily frightened, and prone to shying or bolting, both of which would unbalance the team and put added stress on the older horse. Such behavior could easily result in injury to one or both of the horses. The preferred starting age for a carriage horse was five years old. Younger horses were considered not to be fully developed either physically or mentally and thus not ready to undertake the hard and serious work of pulling a coach or carriage. However, with proper care, a carriage horse would be a reliable worker for fifteen to twenty years.

Now that you know the many exacting criteria which must be met in order to assemble a truly well-matched pair of horses, perhaps you will be less likely to take for granted the next matched team which makes an appearance in the next Regency novel you are reading, or writing. Next week, the various means by which a matched team could be acquired and some of the methods which were employed to handle those teams.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to Matching a Team — Color is Only the Beginning

  1. I continue to love your posts on horses. Considering how much time my characters spend riding in carriages, it’s a treat!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you enjoyed it. When I was researching Cleveland Bays and Yorkshire Coach Horses, several sources noted how easy it was to match a team with them. That made me think that perhaps it was not that easy, in general, to match a team. Once I started researching the subject I realized just how hard it was, even to match a single pair. It gets more difficult with each additional pair that is added to the team.

      I hope you will like next week’s article, which will give details on how teams were assembled, and some interesting handling techniques which I discovered during my research.



  2. Great, Kathryn! As I plan to go to England in autumn and take a (short) course in coach driving as a kind of first-hand experience/research for regency-novel writing, I am delighted to learn so much in advance in this post!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      How exciting!!! I confess myself quite jealous, but I hope you have a wonderful time!

      I am sure your writing will be enhanced by your experience with the ribbons. You are welcome to post links here to any books you publish which include your first-hand driving experiences.



  3. Thank you, Kathryn, that’s very kind.
    In my novel, there actually is a scene with a coach being held up on the highway. I wonder if and how the scene will change when I have finished the course in coach driving.
    I feel excited about doing first-hand-research like this, but also a bit queasy – I am quite a bookworm. The only sport I like is dancing, especially Old English Country Dancing.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am a confirmed bookworm myself, so I can fully identify. I heartily salute your intrepid quest for first-hand details for your books!

      I used to ride horses, though in recent years that has not been possible. More than likely, you will be working with a well-trained team when you take your driving lessons, so they will probably know more than you do. Just remember to be calm and patient when you are with them and they will be the same. I think they are the most beautiful and remarkable creatures and I am sure you will enjoy working with them.



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  5. Somehow I missed this!
    I must have a warped mind as the thought that sprang to mind was how to emulate Jane Austen’s subtle ways of showing character by the choice of carriage to have a comedic parson with a pair of ill-matched nags that he’s proud of for being the same colour…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You have been so quiet, I thought you must be on vacation. Or celebrating the birth of the next heir to the throne! 😉

      Your idea of an ill-matched pair that are the same color has many possibilities for humor. And that is so Jane Austen, she seemed to love to include a comical parson in many of her stories.

      I did discover that most farmers could care less if their teams were the same color, it was much more important to them that they be the same size and have the same strength. The same thing with the horses that pulled fire engines. In the 19th century, though probably not as early as the Regency, fire engine teams of different colors came to be known as a “Boston match” since it seems that one of the first cities to have fire engines, with mis-matched teams was Boston.



      • that’s very interesting! I have an antique toy/model fire engine with lead horses which are painted white but they are cast from the identical mould that was used for cart horses on farm toys… I think the model is 1950’s but is of an engine of the late 19th century similar to the real one in our local transport museum. I think Shire do a publication on early fire engines

  6. YES! I have my comedic parson worked in. He’s an idiot and it’s a metaphor too for his concept of matching in marriage. I don’t often manage metaphors so I’m well pleased.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Please do post a link to the book here when it is available, so we can all enjoy it!


      • I shall do… currently I’m on chapter 17 of about 35 aimed for, so it will take me at least a week to finish even if I can shut the family in a cupboard, neatly folded and deactivated, to get on with it… and then the editing etc etc. It’s called ‘none so blind’ and the heroine is. Blind that is. My parson is an oleaginous little tick who takes fatuous sanctimony to new depths. I wanted to throw something at him almost from the moment he opened his mouth. Preferably a large and hideous epergne of the type Georgette Heyer was inclined to make fun of.

        “I apologise, of course!” said Mr Wrey. “But I do ask, sir, what it is that you object to in my offering to take the poor girl driving?”
        “Well of course she does have the advantage of not being able to see the risible nature of your team,” said Guy. “They may be technically matched in colour and height, but you cannot call a pair matched where the hindquarters of one rises and the other falls, and where one is a high-stepper and the other stumbles on a sixpence. It would not give a smooth ride, and would be uncomfortable for someone who can see the pitfalls of uneven roads ahead, let alone a young girl who has to deal with being shaken about like beans in a pan without visual warning. Moreover, you are too cheap to have a groom and have tied your team outside where they are almost certain to take cold in this chill wind when they should be being walked. I suggest you go to them before they catch their deaths.”

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I think you have quite captured the poor parson! I, for one find him completely disagreeable, based solely on his choice, care and management of his team. Poor critters!

          Though I think there are laws about shutting family members in cupboards for any length of time, certainly if they have been folded, 😉 I do hope you will be able to complete your manuscript in a reasonable time.



          • Thanks! It has been going fairly well… yes, I fear the cupboard solution is not going to be practicable. Ah well, I would hate to be without them… so one must put up with their needs…

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  10. Alicia says:

    Where do you get your information from? I’d love to do some more indepth reading!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The bibliography would be longer than the article. It took several years to gather this information, pulling together bits and pieces from a plethora of sources.

      If you have specific interests, I would recommend running searches on those keywords in Google books. That will give you a list of titles which will have the information you are seeking. Most books are not fully available online, but if you have the author and title, you will be able to find them at your local library, or they can get copies for you via Inter-Library Loan.



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